This post, written by OpEd Project Senior Facilitator Amy Gutman, is being cross-posted with Kenyon’s Beyond Walls program, where Amy Gutman and Zeba Khan will be leading a series of programs with faith leaders during a week in July.
The call for a moment of silence to honor victims of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history prompted some members of the U.S House of Representatives to walk out in protest of what Rep. Jim Himes called the “faux concern, contrived gravity and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.”
“Congress: We are not interested in your thoughts and prayers. We are interested in your gun control policies,” reads a meme widely circulated on social media, in the aftermath of the massacre that took the lives of 49 people and injured at least 53 more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
On Wednesday, U.S. Senate Democrats showed a commitment to move from words to action, launching an almost 15-hour filibuster to push for passage of legislation restricting gun purchases.
Outrage, frustration, sorrow, fury—these are among the feelings infusing new energy into a push to translate feelings into action in the aftermath of what is widely seen as yet another preventable tragedy perpetrated by a single man wielding an assault weapon.
I could not be more on board. But as someone who works in the world of words—who devotes much of my time to expanding the presence of women’s and other under-represented voices in the public arena—I also find myself grappling with the question ofhow. Yes, we must move beyond words—but we can only do so through words. How can we make our words count—and do so in a way that is true to our deepest values?
This question has particular resonance as I prepare to lead an interfaith program aimed at helping members of diverse clergies reach wider audiences with their words and ideas. My own spirituality is eclectic—my childhood Sunday School Christianity having long since blossomed into a deep appreciation for all faiths with a commitment to tolerance and love. One of these is Buddhism, and like so many spiritual eclectics, I’ve spent my share of time in meditation halls, exploring a religion that has as one of its central teachings the notion of “right speech.”
If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? These words are widely attributed to The Buddha and pretty much in line with Buddhist teachings as I’ve come to understand them. Interestingly, however, the precise phrasing appears to be not from The Buddha but rather the title of a Victorian poem by one Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London. (“Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay/ Before a word you speak . . .”)
I mention this curious bit of trivia to make the point that Buddhist teachings on right speech are not unique to Buddhism but also deeply engrained in our larger culture. Be kind. Tell the truth. These are familiar exhortations—the terrain of manners as well as morals. But do they really translate to today’s realities? How to respond when anger and lies are fast propelling a candidate towards the U.S. presidency—when the fastest way to impact often appears to be through fanning emotions?
A core tenet of the “Write to Change the World” seminars we teach is that we seek to change minds through true facts, through evidence-based arguments—and that the most powerful arguments are grounded in empathy and respect for opposing viewpoints. These are, to my mind, beautiful teachings, in line with Buddhist notions of right speech as well as traditional norms. But are they commensurate to the Age of Rage?
In recent months, I’ve thought a lot about this, and ultimately for me, the answer is—the answer must be—Yes. Implicit in this response is a conviction that speaking truth, grounding our arguments in facts, is fundamental to democracy—you might call it the rhetorical equivalent of the rule of law. It is at the heart of who I want to be and the kind of world that I want to inhabit and leave to future generations.
As for kindness—empathy and respect—they are strategies as well as values. How often have you been persuaded to change your mind by someone angrily shouting at you (or the virtual equivalent)? If our goal is to change minds, we need to speak in ways that make it easy for people to listen. We know from research—like here and here—as well as personal experience that simply being “right” is rarely enough. Rather, we are well-served by recognizing that an argument is necessarily a partnership where, in the words of Julia Galef “you together are trying to figure out the right answer.”
That said, kindness does not mean turning a blind eye to hatred, violence, or injustice. Quite to the contrary. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg tells a story about a terrifying encounter in Calcutta, when she was grabbed out of a rickshaw in a dark alley. Her teacher’s response when, still shaken, she later described the incident: “Oh Sharon, with all the loving kindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit that man over the head with it!” It’s all about intention: Don’t strike out with the primary intention of doing harm. Do take wise action to protect (whether yourself or others).
Words are not something apart from action – they are both action in themselves and pave the way for real-world change. It’s long been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Will the (virtual) pen prove mightier than the Sig Sauer MCX? The answer will be up to us.
Amy Gutman is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.